Around the country, advocates for low-income Americans are incorporating international human rights norms into their daily work. This spring, in both Illinois and California, advocates for homeless people are on the verge of having their elected representatives pass legislation that would guarantee homeless people certain basic rights. These efforts are part of a positive recent trend. Last summer, Rhode Island became the first state to clearly define homeless people’s rights through the passage of a homeless bill of rights. The state legislatures in Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut, and Missouri have also introduced bills to protect homeless residents’ rights.
Last week, the Illinois House passed the Bill of Rights for the Homeless. Advocated for by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (and supported by the Shriver Center), the bill would “protect people who experience the loss of housing from discrimination by creating a list of basic rights. These rights include the right to maintain gainful employment, to access emergency medical care, to access public spaces and transit systems, the right to privacy of personal property, records, and information, and the right to vote on the same basis as others.” Notably, under the terms of the Illinois bill, these rights could not be denied because of housing status; if they were violated because someone was homeless, that person could sue for damages.
California’s Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, formally known as Assembly Bill 5, recently passed an important committee hearing and moved one step closer to a final vote. Although it targets the same problem as the Illinois legislation, the California bill differs from the Illinois bill in many respects. The California bill is significantly longer than the Illinois legislation and contains protections for people who assist homeless citizens. The California bill also requires local law enforcement agencies to provide information to the attorney general and the public about their enforcement of ordinances against homeless persons and compliance with the act. Under the California bill, the California Department of Public Health would be required to create “health and hygiene centers” for homeless residents. Like the Illinois bill, the California bill would allow civil suits and damages for people whose rights are violated.
As Greg Kaufman observes in his blog at The Nation, it would be particularly meaningful for California’s homeless population to have a clear statement of their rights. In California, Kaufman writes, “[t]here are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness … on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless.”
Bills of rights for the homeless have opponents, however. The California Chamber of Commerce labeled the California bill a “job killer” because it supposedly imposes “costly and unreasonable mandates on employers.” Other Californians are concerned about how much the health and hygiene centers could cost, and the time and money that law enforcement would need to devote to the bill’s reporting requirements. In Illinois, by contrast, criticism of the Bill of Rights for the Homeless focused on the supposed potential for voter fraud.
Both the Illinois bill and the California bill are still moving through their state legislatures. The California bill is scheduled to go before the Appropriations Committee shortly, and the Illinois bill has been returned to the Illinois Senate for a vote on an amendment. Even if the bills pass, their supporters’ work will not end. As the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless observed:
“The Homeless Bill of Rights hasn’t changed conditions overnight. Ensuring that agencies are complying with the new rules is difficult. Committees have been established to ensure that the law is implemented, but of course, law or no law, harassment and discrimination continue.”
No matter what happens to the Illinois and California bills, however, they have prompted legislators to give serious consideration to the issues facing homeless people—and to use human rights language when doing so. As the Illinois bill recognizes in its statement of legislative intent:
“[N]o person should suffer unnecessarily from cold or hunger, be deprived of shelter or the basic rights incident to shelter, or be subject to unfair discrimination based on his or her homeless status. At the present time, many persons have been rendered homeless as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety net.”
To learn more about how you and your colleagues can use human rights principles in your work, consult Clearinghouse Review’s 2011 special issue, Human Rights: A New (and Old) Way to Secure Justice.